CONQUERING SNAKE CANYON, THE DUNGEAONS OF OMANI MOUNTAINS

“As the rain was slowing down and the clouds were fading away, we did drive to the mouth of the Snake Canyon and despite the questionable weather and the late hour – 2 PM – a few of us ventured in…”

Snake Canyon, Oman

It is the peak of the outdoors season in Arabia, and where or how to spend the weekend will not remain without an answer for long if you have a cool friend like Yousef.

A little while back he popped the question if we want to join him into the Snake Canyon for an adventure trip. Forget about how fit you are! Just bring waterproof shoes, quick drying sporty – or comfy – clothes and your love for nature! And so we did.

On a Friday morning, at dawn, five four-wheel cars packed with food, people, camping and mountain gear hit the road from Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Musandam to a meeting point some 250 km away, in Sohar, Oman. From here, we drove in formation another 200 kilometres to Rustaq, the last town before the entry into the Wadi Bani Awf, pretty much the border between the Western and Eastern Hajar mountains.

“Is there anything you need? Water, juice, bread? Last chance for shopping,” announced Yousef as we made a quick stop over in Rustaq.

Born in Musandam, the Omani peninsula overlooking the Strait of Hurmuz, Yousef Mohammed Al Shehhi spent all his life climbing rocks, swimming and generally exploring the outdoors. With such passion for nature, it was only natural that he would establish a tourism adventure company — Absolute Adventures — in his hometown, Dibba, taking oversees travellers and weekend trippers trekking through the dry wadis and peaks of the spectacular Musandam mountains, rock climbing, sea kayaking, scuba diving or just exploring the stunning fjords of the peninsula. Even his holidays are all about outdoor adventures rather than five-star resorts.

“Every year my friends and I explore some wilderness in different parts of the world. We drove through Botswana, mostly camping, we crossed parts of Australia off-road, we went climbing into the Swiss Alps… every year there is a new adventure,” said Yousef.

SWIM FOR YOUR LIFE

Little Snake Canyon, Oman
Little Snake Canyon

After stopping for the Friday prayers, fuel and cola for Ali G, we finally left Rustaq and the paved road and entered the mountain terrain for the Bani Awf gorge and Snake Canyon.

“Just take out about a minute of air pressure from your tyres. It will help with driving on the rocky truck road,” advised Simon, a mountaineer who’s done the Snake Canyon several times before.

Pretty quickly, the spectacular Hajars revealed their might and beauty, with greenery easing the eye at its feet and sharp rocks piercing the sky thousands of meters above. No wonder that the nearby Oman highest mountain, at 3075 meters, is called Jebel Shams — Mountain of the Sun.

After half an hour drive through the gorge, we take a sharp turn South of the main road and stop at the mouth of Little Snake Canyon. A mat placed in the shade of a tree gathers everyone around for a quick lunch of home cooked rice, meet and saloona – vegetable stew – a nice surprise made by Mohammed.

Most of the group prepares for trekking the canyon, while Yousef and Simon go searching for a good place to camp.

“It’s now three o’clock, so not much time before sunset. Not matter what, make sure you turn around after one hour, so you will be back here at five o’clock,” urged Simon.

“You will be swimming part of the way through cold water, so don’t wear boots or cotton clothes. Wear something that dries out quickly”.

The first part of the wadi proved the most challenging one, as we had to go over high, slippery rocks. As we pushed on deeper, the gorge was getting narrower and narrower. Small pools of water began to appear and the occasional frog was jumping about.

“In the summer, when it’s much hotter down here, all these frogs will become lunch for the snakes that are now hiding in warmer spots,” pointed out Ali Mohammed, who had no problem walking over the sharp rocks barefoot – no doubt a habit he picked up as a kid in the mountains of Ras Al Khaimah (UAE), and then continued over in Musandam, where he lives now.

At the first deep water pool, Ali G decided to be the first to take the plunge. In the flashes of everybody’s waterproof cameras, he jumped from the three meters high rock into the 12 degrees water. The rest of us just walked into the pool until it reached chest-high and then had to swim for about 30 metres.

“Once you are in you have to keep going to keep the body warm. Otherwise it could be dangerous,” said Ali G.

The water was so cold that it felt like body was getting numb and the heart was about to stop.

“Keep swimming fast! Don’t slow down,” kept shouting Ali G.

Elena, Ivana, Emi and Sarah took the lead, being among the first to make it through. At some point, the canyon walls were so narrow, barely a metre wide, that felt like you could hardly swim through.

After passing a couple of such deep, narrow pools, we took a rest for just a few minutes and began the way back. At the entrance of the canyon, Yousef and Simon were waiting for us.

“Common guys, we found a good place to set up for the night,” said Simon.

HANGING ON THE MOUNTAIN

On the peaks above Snake Canyon
On the peaks above Snake Canyon

Still well soaked, we drove to the camp just as the sun was setting. After a quick change into warm, dry clothes, and after setting up the tents, we were ready for the campfire. Pretty soon the food began to appear and it seemed to never end. Lamb, beef, chicken, potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn — the barbeque grill kept being filled, by Emi, Ivana and Elena.

“Hey everybody, before we all go into party mood, we need to have a meeting to decide who is doing the line climbing tomorrow,” shouted Yousef switching off the music.

“We only have equipment for a few of us. Who wants to go?”

Immediately, all hands were up. The ropes, the carabiners, the harnesses and the helmets were all checked and, according to numbers and sizes, but also the strong wishes, five climbers were selected.

They all had to be ready by 8 AM to drive above the Snake Canyon, from where they would begin the vertical descent down the mountain and then across the traverse line connecting the split between two mountain walls. Despite the clouds and short showers that kept coming and going, each of the brave five packed a small rucksack with gear, water and some food, and in the early morning were off, while the rest of the group was still asleep.

By noon the rain was pretty heavy and the stay-at-camp group packed up everything and went to meet the climbers. Just as we thought the rain is getting really dangerous, filling up the wadis with muddy water pretty fast, all five appeared safe and sound at the rendezvous point, at the bottom of the mountain.

“It was tough, but great,” said Ali Mohamed, all wet and shaking with cold.

Sarah too was all smiles.

“I’ve never done it before and it was difficult in the beginning until I understood how the rope and the carabiners work,” she admitted.

“We had a problem with the rope in the beginning because it was tangled and Simon had to hang on the traverse line for a bit, with a sheer 50 meters drop under him, but he was safe and everything was okay,” added Yousef.

Being caught by rain in a wadi is often fatal. The water rises in minutes, coming down from mounting slopes and bringing with it rocks and wood logs. Climbing out of these muddy “rivers” onto the high slippery rocks it’s not easy and, in the case of Snake Canyon, impossible, as the rocks are too high. There have been cases, Snake Canyon included, when people were trapped and never made it out.

As the rain was slowing down and the clouds were fading away, we did drive to the mouth of the Snake Canyon and despite the questionable weather and the late hour – 2 PM – a few of us ventured in, while the rest of the group went for a walk on the higher slopes.Snake Canyon, Oman

“The canyon is 3.5 km long, but we will only go up to the cave and then return. We should be back in three hours,” said Simon.

Crossing this gorge involves swimming through an un-lit cave, filled with murky water. The gorge may not require perfect fitness, but is definitely not for the skirmish. Right from the beginning, the group plunged into the cold water and the entire route was a challenge of climbing rocks and jumping into pools from several meters high rock ledges. Usually, once you go in there is no coming back, nor an escape exit up the canyon. The trek should be completed till the exit on the other side of the mountain.

By 5 PM, we were waiting anxiously at the entrance of the canyon. Soon enough, we heard the voices of our returning friends.

“Returning the same way we had to climb about five metres high rock, which was smooth and slippery, from deep water, while still swimming. That was the most difficult part,” said Ali Mohammed.

“The cave too was not easy since we had to swim in the dark and there was a lot of drifting wood, but it was all great fun.”

The cave, Snake Canyon
The cave, Snake Canyon

Soon before sunset we began the drive back down the mountain and, after dinner in Rustaq, the long drive back to UAE.

“Looking back at the pictures, I think we are not normal,” joked Elena.

Yet, barely a week had passed and everybody is talking about returning.

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